Choosing the best ocarina key for a tune

While the ocarina is fully chromatic, the limited range of a single chamber severely limits the keys which can be practically played. You get an octave with 3 notes above and one or two below. Within this limitation even playing in D on a C ocarina, one whole tone up, you actually lose two diatonic notes from the top of the range. You can play up to the high E, yet the next note in the scale - F# - is out of range.

Now you could transpose the music to fit, which is fine if you're playing alone or if your accompanist can also transpose with you, but this isn't always practical, sometimes you just have to play in a given key, perhaps to fit with a vocalist, or in a pub session where the keys G and D are standard, or even a non-midi backing track.

When I first started playing the ocarina I just transposed things to fit without paying much notice to the key. Consequently as I developed as a musician and wanted to play with accompaniment, as I was playing in uncommon keys it was imposable to find anyone willing to do so. I had to re-learn a lot of things. For this reason I strongly recommend learning to play things in the original key, or the most commonly played key.

So how do you do it within the range of the ocarina? If it's only a note or two out of range you may be able to replace that note with another from the chord. But if you want to be able to play in most situations you're going to have to go beyond your alto C ocarina.

Here's a straightforward example, the swallowtail jig in G (technically A Dorian). A quick scan over the notes reveals that the tune has a range of G to high B, in this key it won't fit at all on a C ocarina. The solution here is to play it on an ocarina tuned in G. As the F# is present natively on such an ocarina, no accidentals are required.

Example - swallowtail jig.

The swallowtail jig in G (a Dorian)

However take a look at the following tune which is not so straightforward. Looking at the key signature you can see that the tune is in G. Scanning over the notes will reveal that it has a range of low D to high G, this goes down too low for a G ocarina and too high for a C. As most of the character of this tune is on the high end, you could opt to modify the low notes to fit on a G ocarina. However a better solution is to play the tune on an ocarina in D, adding an accidental replacing the C# with C natural.

Just because a tune is in a given key, 'C' for example, doesn’t mean that it actually fits a single octave - C to C. It is more important to look at the note range than the key when selecting an ocarina. Tunes with the key note in the middle of the range are not uncommon.

Brighton camp / The girl i left behind me

Another such oddity is a tune called Lemmy Brazil's no 2. What's the key? D major. What's the range? F# to high A. How to handle this? Play it on a 11+ hole G ocarina. Here the F is already sharp in the scale, so you have to add the C#, which is the same fingering as a F# on a C ocarina.

lemmy brazils no 2

What keys you will need depends on the music you are playing.

For the music I'm involved with, mainly folk and traditional, the most useful ocarinas are G and D.

If you don't have a suitable ocarina, it's also possible to learn a tune such that it would be in the correct key if you did. Meaning if you played it with the same fingerings on (for example) a B flat ocarina, it would come out in the right key.

All of the above tunes could be played on a C ocarina, keeping exactly the same fingerings as on the recommended keys above, but they would come out in a different key. Namely C Dorian, F and G.